Friday, July 15, 2011

From the 405 to the 4077

The main corridor between the San Fernando Valley and the Westside of Los Angeles will be closed starting tonight all through the weekend. The traffic should be so bad that even though I’m currently in Palo Alto, we should still have grid lock. Anyway, here are some Friday questions to ponder while LA people frantically try to get out of town, and non-LA people laugh hysterically.

Gazzoo starts us off:

Your final writing credit for MASH was “Goodbye Radar”, apparently written as the 7th season finale but held back (at the network’s request) till the 8th season. Did Gary Burghoff or anyone have special requests for the episode in terms of storyline or particular scenes? And by the time the episode was produced you and David were no longer the head writers, did the new regime tinker with your script at all? Any other tidbits?

No one had any special requests, but David and I were very adamant that we didn’t want a sappy ending. That’s why we constructed the final sequence so that all of the final goodbyes were during triage and the farewells had to be quick and on the run.

I’m a big fan of “little touches”. Hawkeye discovering Radar’s teddy bear on his bed says more about how Radar matured from the MASH experience than any speech could have ever done, no matter how eloquently it was written.

We also wanted to send Radar home happy. Henry Blake was killed and Frank went bonkers. We wanted Radar to return home having benefited somewhat from the experience. He grew up and found love in Korea.

Originally it was a just a single episode but when CBS decided to push it back into the 8th season they asked that it be expanded into a two-parter.

The new staff rewrote very very little of our draft (thanks for that, guys). I don’t believe a line was changed from the entire final act. One day I’ll get Gary Burghoff to write about the episode from his perspective.

Richard Leslie Lewis is a British writer who just came back from a BBC Writers’ Festival. Showrunners there claimed they only wanted to see original specs. So here’s his question:

Why do American companies insist on writers specing current shows?

Because we want to see how you write other peoples’ shows. Can you capture the tone and style? Do your characters sound like the actual characters on the show? Yes, everyone is looking for that fresh new voice, but in America, more than likely, your first job (or several jobs) will be toiling on someone else’s show. Can you adapt to their vision? 

Mirror James (also from England) wonders:

Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies, his predecessor on Doctor Who, often seem to be the targets of abuse from people who claim to be fans. Everything from saying they can't write to accusations of running a so-called "gay agenda", in which the mere acknowledgement that gay people exist is apparently "shoving it down their throats".

Have you ever had a bad experience with a fan who claims to love a show yet can't seem to do anything other than hurl insults?

Only all the time. Fans are passionate about their shows. I got a hate letter on MASH from someone who thought Hawkeye was being too mean to Radar. Other loyal MASH viewers claimed in profanity-laced missives that I was a liberal Commie dupe hell bent on destroying America.

The "gay agenda" complaint was a staple on FRASIER.  Referring to this and the "we're too liberal" charge on MASH, I like to think we had an "open minded agenda". 

My favorite was a letter I received when David and I were showrunning the MARY series. It started out like this:

Dear Producers,

Recently I read an article in TV GUIDE that spoke of the growing cocaine problem in the television industry. At first I thought they were grossly exaggerating, but then I watched an episode of your show…

I will say this though – no one ever called me an “asshat”.

And finally, from Chris:

How do they shoot/do those scenes when the audience laughs just when the camera zooms on something, like a silent opening with the camera zooming on what a character is reading and just then the audience starts to laugh?

I assume you mean a studio audience. There are always monitors overhead and they will be invited to watch them for particular scenes or moments. Often special scenes will be pre-shot and just shown to the audience. What they see is what you’ll see at home so they receive the same surprise.

What’s your question?


Phillip B said...

Always thought the speculative future you created for Radar would have made a great spin-off....

Unknown said...

What movies in the last couple of years would you like to take a crack at turning into a series - ala MASH the movie becoming MASH the series?

The reason I ask is because I would assume that some studio execs are currently trying to figure out how they can make "Harry Potter" the TV series to capitalize on the Potter-vacuum that is now upon us.

John Hauge said...

well...let me be the first then. hey, ass hat.

Michael Zand said...

How the hell did they come to the conclusion about cocaine use by watching your show? Did make-up leave powder smudges near Mary's nose?

Mac said...

Is an asshat a hat that you wear on your ass, or a hat that looks like an ass? If so, wouldn't it just make you look bald, but with a middle-parting?
That's not really my question, because I suspect no-one really knows what an asshat is, and, like the Higgs boson particle, great minds will always debate the existence of the asshat.

D T Nelson said...

Why do people in Southern California use "the" when refering to numbered highways, "the 405," e.g.? This is not done anywhere else in this country (that I am aware of, and I'm fairly aware). In the normal parts of the USA, one would say just "405," or "Interstate 405" or "I-405," without the article. Likewise, a US highway might be called "30" or "US 30" or "Route 30" or "Highway 30," but not "the 30" — that only happens in California.

Bobby Troup didn't write "Get your kicks on the 66," after all.

Unknown said...

"The" 405, "the" 10, "the" 210 is simply a quirk of Southern California. In a place where so much and so many try to be something else, it makes southern California's mark on the world.

Kind of like in Chicago, while there are numbers for the interstates, they have names: the "Ike," the "Stevenson," the "Kennedy," the "Bishop Ford," etc.

Michael said...

I remember that during the 8th season, Gary Burghoff would make these guest appearances where he would call in. It really looked contrived. But his final episode was great. The only problem was something that Burghoff once said, along the lines that he was twice the age of the character he was playing.

Jake Mabe said...

The way you and David chose to have Radar make his exit is just one of, er, 4077 reasons why "M*A*S*H" is the best sitcom ever produced on American television. And I'm not just saying that because your blog makes me laugh out loud...

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, when it comes to route numbers we have the same quirk in western NY (the Buffalo metro area) that Southern California has.

Our version of the 405 would be the 33. You can also get there on the 190, the 290 and the 990. Nobody ever says "Route" or "Interstate."

And don't call them "Buffalo Wings" -- they're just "Wings!"

te said...

And don't call them "Buffalo Wings" -- they're just "Wings!"

"What do they call Chinese food in China"?
-- "Food."

LouOCNY said...

Oddly enough, when it comes to route numbers we have the same quirk in western NY (the Buffalo metro area) that Southern California has.

Our version of the 405 would be the 33. You can also get there on the 190, the 290 and the 990. Nobody ever says "Route" or "Interstate."

And they do that nowhere else in New York State -

Around here its 'Route' for the state or US highways, and numbers for the Interstates - except for the Thruway...and NY 17, which is unofficially 'The Quickway'....

Anonymous said...

The first three seasons of MASH were good but then it became the Alan Alda show and a liberal preach fest.

-bee said...

I get so tired of people with a personal bias against Alan Alda claim he turned the show into a 'liberal preach-fest'.

These dim bulbs might want to consider that in earlier seasons Frank and Margaret (aka "hot lips") who represented a conservative point of view were out and out villains and idiots with no redeeming qualities. Ergo, the show could be seen as being very black and white with the anti-establishment as the good guys and the establishment as the bad guys.

In later seasons, Frank was replaced by Charles, who was a far more nuanced and human character whose 'establishment' values were not ALWAYS seen to be without merit. Margaret became a more sympathetic character whose love of the Military was in some respects seen to be something to admire. (not to mention Henry was also a very positive representative of the military).

Yes, for all those who got off on the earlier years celebration of Hawkeye's (and Trapper's) compulsive womanizing, indeed, this was toned down, possibly due to Alda's influence...well Boo bloody hoo.

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

"Why do people in Southern California use "the" when refering to numbered highways, "the 405," e.g.? This is not done anywhere else in this country (that I am aware of, and I'm fairly aware). In the normal parts of the USA, one would say just "405," or "Interstate 405" or "I-405," without the article. Likewise, a US highway might be called "30" or "US 30" or "Route 30" or "Highway 30," but not "the 30" — that only happens in California."

Because we're better than you.

LinGin said...

Re: creator/writer abuse --

See Lindelof, Damon and Cuse, Carlton.

Laurel said...

Hi Ken,

I've got another Friday question for you, it's about Cheers.

Why did the writers feel that Sam and Diane should not get married or back together permenatly in the last episode of Cheers, as personaly I think a lot of people (myself included) would have liked to have seen them together at last?

Kyle B said...

I also thought Alda's influence wrecked MASH, the same way that Carroll O'Connor's influence ultimately wrecked All in the Family.

And sorry, Ken - I'm a big fan of your work, but I thought the shot of the teddy bear on Radar's bed was schmaltzy and obvious.

Kirk said...

I agree with -bee that MASH was much more left-wing vs right-wing during the Frank Burns era. The only time politics (other than generalized anti-war sentiment) comes up in the show's last three seasons is an episode where Margaret is investigated by a Joe McCarthy type. Charles (Burns' replacement) actually helps Hawkeye and BJ foil the right-winger in that one.

The womanizing comes from the movie. It's been a long time since I read the book, but I recall Hawkeye and Trapper John and Duke (AWOL in the TV version) were all married men faithful to their wives, though they did talk a lot about sex (especially about an "epilectic whore"). It was Ring Lardner Jr, who wrote the screenplay, that made them all adulterous (assuming the screen versions of the characters were married; I don't remember the movie saying on way or another). Perhaps having served in Korea himself, Lardner found such fidelity unbelivable (the novel was written by a doctor who also served in Korea. Could he have toned down any hanky-panky because he was afraid the misses might read it?) Anyway, if Alda decided in later years to cut down on Hawkeye's (a bachelor in the TV version) womanizing, he was at least being true to the novel.

I agree that there was a slip in quality those last few seasons. Not so much the drama as the comedy, which became incredibly tame. Yet the episodes written by Alda in those years did have an edge to them. Maybe he didn't have ENOUGH of an influence.

Tyler K said...

Question for Ken---

I greatly love sitcom gag reels and outtakes, which often can be as funny (if not more so) than any given episode of the series itself. However, how do the production staff and even the actors themselves feel about the flubbed lines, breaking up with laughter, and practical jokes?

How many consecutive takes can an actor mess up before the behind-the-scenes staff get irritated? What about the other actors? Do you have any good anecdotes of such an occurrence?

Jake Mabe said...

The earlier comment, "Alda's influence wrecked MASH," may be the single most ignorant thing I've ever read.

Kyle B said...

Jake, when you grow up a little, you'll find that there are opinions out there that differ from your own that aren't ignorant, just different (particularly when it comes to something as subjective as the quality of a TV show).

Tony Tower said...

Here's a question for you, Ken: can you elaborate how TV shows based on other material are credited as "Created By" versus "Developed By"? Obviously the latter was appropriate for something like SMALLVILLE which hinges so totally on the existing Superman mythos. But to my eye, GAME OF THRONES seems as faithful to its source as, say, THE WALKING DEAD. But GAME is "Created by" and DEAD is "Developed."

Is this WGA-determined? Negotiated in the contracts? What are the guidelines?


DyHrdMET said...

I saw I LOVE LUCY on TV the other day. I think it was one of the episodes you wrote (kidding). What I saw was actually the final episode and then the premiere episode (from 60 years ago).

So my question...
How has sitcom writing changed or evolved over the past 60 years (I don't actually know the first real sitcom, if there was one before LUCY), in terms of the process, the quality of writing, and the comedy? Or hasn't it changed in any of those ways?